Waging battles for a better environment
HIS NAME has lent credibility to Goa's environmental and human rights agitations. Matanhy Saldanha, the self-effacing, 42-year-old biology teacher in Panaji's Don Bosco has been involved with these agitations from the early 1980s. In fact, Saldanha's recollections sound like a historical narrative of independent Goa's environmental and human rights activism.
The first major popular protest in this region was directed against fertiliser giant Zuari Agro Chemicals, located at Sanquale, near Panaji. It transpired that the factory was discharging untreated effluents, which contained ammonia, into a nearby quarry. The ammonia gradually seeped into the streams and then into the groundwater, thus polluting the wells and affecting the villagers' health. It was then that an anti-pollution citizen's committee was set up with Saldanha as its chairperson. The administration woke up after a protracted agitation which went on for about a year and the factory was closed for about six months until it set up a proper treatment plant. This agitation helped in the formulation of the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974.
Another important agitation was to stop the commercial excavation of sand dunes, which helped protect local residents from rising tidal waters. The agitation began in 1975 when Saldanha and some others formed an anti-sand extraction committee. After a year-long agitation lasting a year or so, the government stopped sand extraction from the coast.
Meanwhile, Saldanha and his fellow environmentalists decided to take up the cause of the traditional fisherfolk of the area, whose livelihood was threatened by mechanised trawlers that were being allowed to fish close to the coast. This also resulted in the depletion of fish stocks because eggs and fishlings were being destroyed in the process. Until then, the only protection the fisherfolk had was from the Fisheries Act of 1897, which prohibited certain fishing activities upto a depth of about 10 m in the sea, a rule the trawler operators generally ignored.
Thus another struggle began, which goes on even today under the banner of National Fishermen's Forum, which Saldanha headed for 10 years. There have been numerous other agitations with which Saldanha has been associated.
Now, Saldanha is part of the Konkan Railway Realignment Committee. He is confident the battle against the present alignment will be won. Says he, "If we are able to galvanise people, no agency can ignore their demands. Right now, the problem is that people are unable to see the real damage the Konkan railway will do to Goa."